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A wild ride of sonic colors: Portland Youth Philharmonic with Nolan Tu

PYP season opener celebrated the group’s century mark.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic celebrated its 90th birthday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Portland Youth Philharmonic celebrating its 90th birthday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic celebrated its 100th anniversary in style with an enthusiastic and masterful concert (November 11) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Around 115 young musicians used up every inch of real estate on the stage, and guided by musical director David Hattner delivered outstanding performances of works by Anna Clyne, Antonín Dvořák, and Camille Saint-Saëns–with the latter’s Second Piano Concerto featuring Nolan Tu, winner of Portland Piano International’s Concerto Competition.

With This Midnight Hour by British composer Anna Clyne, the orchestra launched a wild ride of sonic colors. Under a propulsive beat, there emerged a snarling brass sound, which morphed into a glowing brass choir. That gave way to a storm-like passage, accented by the bass drum and timpani, and then a pointed, pizzicato-ing sequence for all of the strings. Primitive cries from the horns were followed by a fuzzy, almost spacey section – with bowed tones on the xylophone – and then another maelstrom of untamed turbulence and a series of quick pauses. Everything dissipated into a haunting, slightly nostalgic, waltz-like melody before taking off on another crazy, propulsive drive. A bassoon duet and a lazy, almost bluesy tune from two trumpets positioned on the balcony above the orchestra ushered the piece to a deceptively quiet finale – only to be punctuated at the very end with a double forte wham by the timpani, as if slamming the door shut on the whole piece. The spooky effect made me think of Halloween, but such imaginative music may have suggested nightmares to other listeners. 

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 received a superb interpretation by Tu, who is a senior at Union High School in Camas, Washington and a student of Dr. Renato Fabbro. The 17-year-old has already won many competitions, and he demonstrated complete command of the keyboard in the Saint-Saëns, starting with the extravagant opening statement. Lyrical passages flowed gracefully, and the stormy sections – with lots of filigree – were thrilling. Tu excelled with the playful and delicate second movement, and his fingers raced with elan all over the keyboard in the third. The audience loved it all, rewarding the conclusion of each movement with enthusiastic applause. 

The second half of the concert, devoted to Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, marked the first time that the PYP had ever played it. The orchestra, urged on by Hattner, surmounted this complex piece with exceptional style, providing lots of dynamic contrasts. Listeners could easily slip into the folk-like melodies, but there were delicious, pensive moments as well. Eruptions of sound subsided gently into tender phrases. The second movement was highlighted by a lovely chorus of woodwinds, noble horns, and grand tutti crescendos. The third featured terrifically surging lines, and the fourth offered loud volleys, a singing sound from the violins, and a wonderfully majestic finale. Kudos to principal flutist Macy Gong for her evocative playing throughout the piece.

As the nation’s oldest youth orchestra, the PYP has served as a model for similar ensembles throughout North America. As special exhibit of this incredible orchestra from its founding by visionary violin teacher Mary Dodge to its current leadership under Hattner is on display at the Oregon Historical Society through February 4th. You will be amazed by what this orchestra has accomplished over the past century, playing with illustrious soloists like Issac Stern, undertaking international tours, and never missing a concert even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Over five generations, the PYP has touched the lives of thousands of musicians, who have shared their music-making and made this world a much better place.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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